224: Better Allies with Karen Catlin
02:31 - Karen’s Superpower: The Ability to Simplify Things
05:55 - Better Allies – Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces; Triaging and Curating Research
14:15 - Maintaining Anonyminity (at first); Prove It Again Bias
26:09 - Culture Add + Values Fit
32:11 - Network Effect: Venturing Beyond Homogenous Networks
41:58 - Doing This Work is Everyone’s Job
48:12 - People to Follow
51:13 - The Decline of Gender Parity in the Tech Industry
58:15 - Making Statements and Changing the Status Quo
Rein: Getting better at praxis: for every white dude with a beard you follow on Twitter, go follow 10 Black women in tech.
Damien: How bias can interfere with an action right before the action happens.
Chanté: We’re all allies. We cannot do this work alone. Today you might be the ally, tomorrow you may be the bridge.
Arty: Expanding our homogenous networks. Change takes courage on all of our parts.
Karen: Turning period statements into questions or adding “until now” to those statements.
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REIN: Welcome to Episode 224 of Greater Than Code. Take two.
So full disclosure, we recorded this or more specifically, didn't record this conversation so we're going to do it again.
I'm your co-host, Rein Hendricks, and I'm here with my co-host, Damien Burke.
DAMIEN: Thanks, Rein. And I'm here with my co-host, Chanté Thurmond.
CHANTÉ: Everyone, Chanté here. And I'm here with Arty Starr.
ARTY: Thank you, Chanté. And I'm here with our awesome guest today, Karen Catlin.
So after spending 25 years building software products and serving as a vice-president of engineering at Macromedia and Adobe, Karen Catlin witnessed a sharp decline in the number of women working in tech. Frustrated but galvanized, she knew it was time to switch gears.
Today, Karen is a leadership coach and a highly acclaimed author and speaker on inclusive workplaces. She is the author of three books: "Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces," "The Better Allies Approach to Hiring,” and "Present! A Techie's Guide to Public Speaking."
Welcome, Karen to the show!
KAREN: And it is a pleasure to be back with you and to be having this conversation today. Thanks so much for having me.
ARTY: And we very much appreciate you being here again with us.
So our first question we always ask at the beginning of the show is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
KAREN: Okay so, my superpower is the ability to simplify things and I joke that I think I acquired this superpower simply as a coping strategy because there's so much information out there. We're all bombarded with things and maybe my brain is just not as big as other people so I constantly am trying to simplify things so that I can understand them, remember them, convey them, and so forth.
And I'll share, I think it served me well, not only as I embarked on my computer science programming school and just trying to like grok everything that I was trying to learn as well as then entering the field initially as a software engineer. Again, simplifying things, divide and conquer, break things down into those procedural elements that can be repeated and generalized.
Certainly, then as I moved into executive roles as a vice-president of engineering, you're just context switching all day long. Again, I just had to simplify everything that was going on so that could really remember things, take notes on things, and make decisions based on what I thought I needed to do.
Yeah. So that's my superpower.
ARTY: That's a great superpower. So in the context of the workplace and you've got teams trying to things out, maybe a design problem you're working on, trying to solve. How does simplifying things come into play in a team context like that?
KAREN: Well, it comes into play a lot of ways. I'm remembering one example where there was some interpersonal conflict between two people and I was hearing both sides, as one does, and talking to them both. I got them both in a room because they just weren't seeing each other's point of views, I thought, and they were just working at odds to each other.
Hearing them both talk, I was able to say, “So at the heart, this is what we're all trying to do. This is what we are trying to achieve together,” and I got them to confirm that. That was the first step in simplifying just the discussion. They were getting a little emotional about things. They were bringing in a lot of details that frankly, weren't necessary to really understand what was going on and I was able to focus them on that shared purpose that we had for the project. It doesn't even matter what it was.
Actually, it was so long ago now I can't quite remember what the issue was, but I remember hearing afterwards one of the people say, “You are so good at simplifying things got down to the heart,” and I'm like, “Yes, I am. That's my superpower.”
ARTY: It sounds like even more than that, or maybe a slightly different frame of just the example you just gave. It's not only simplifying things, you are distilling the essence of what's important or what someone is trying to say, and getting at what's the underlying message underneath all the things that someone's actually trying to communicate, even if they're struggling too, so that you can help two people may be coming from different directions, be able to understand one another. That's pretty powerful.
KAREN: Well, thank you and I love the way you've just framed it, Arty and oh, those are big shoes to fill. Woo! I hope I've been able to do that in a number of different settings as I think back, but that's yeah, it is powerful. I think I probably still have some stuff I can learn there, too.
CHANTÉ: Arty, thank you for teeing up this because what I am curious about in relation to what Karen just mentioned as her superpower, which I think is amazing, is obviously, you have authored a number of books. When it comes to allyship, it sounds like this is a great time where we can get somebody to distill and to simplify and not to oversimplify because there's an art to it. But I would love if you could maybe take us down the pathway of how did you arrive at this moment where you are authoring books on allyship and maybe you could give us a little bit of the backstory, first and then we could get into the superpower you've used along the way in your tech journey.
CHANTÉ: And how you're coaching people.
KAREN: All right. Chanté, thank you. Yes, I'm happy to.
So the backstory, first of all, I never set out to become an author, or to become a speaker, or this expert that people tap into about workplace inclusion. That was not my goal. I was doing my job in tech. I was a vice-president of engineering at Adobe. I was leading engineering teams and realizing that there was a decline happening before my eyes in gender diversity.
Now I started my career in tech a long time ago and I started at a time when there was sort of a peak period of women studying computer science in the United States. And so, when I started my career, it wasn't 50-50 by any means, but there was plenty of gender diversity in the teams I was working on, in the conference rooms I was in, in the cube lands that I was working in and I saw a decline happening.
So while I was still at Adobe, I started our women's employee resource group—goes back gosh, like 14, 15 years now—and I've started mentoring a lot of women at the company and started basically, being a vocal advocate to make sure women were represented in various leadership meetings I was in, on stage, at our internal events and conferences, giving updates at all-hands meetings, like well, thinking about that. I love doing that work so much and loved doing that work less so my VP of engineering work, I must admit.
So about 9 years ago now, I decided to do a big change in my career pivot in my own career, I started leadership coaching practice. A leadership coaching practice focused on helping women who are working in tech in any capacity, any role. But women working in this industry, I wanted to help them grow their leadership skills so they could stay in tech if that's where they wanted to be and not drop out because they felt like, “I just can't get ahead,” or “I'm seeing all the white men get ahead,” for example, “before me.”
So I started this coaching practice. I soon realized, though that I had a big problem with my coaching practice and the problem wasn't with my clients—they were amazing. The problem, I don't think was me. I think I'm a decent coach, still learning, still getting better, but decent. And realized the problem really that I was facing is that before I could truly help my clients, I needed to make their companies more inclusive.
All of them were working at tech companies where the closer you get to the leadership team, to the C-suite, to the CEO, just the mailer and paler it got. With all due respect to anyone who's male and or pale, I'm white myself, anyone who's listening, who's male and/or pale, like that's just what the demographics were and still are in most of our companies.
Also, that coupled with this mentality of, “Hey, we are a meritocracy. People get ahead in our company based on their merits, their accomplishments, the impact to the business.” When in reality, that's not what happens because if it were then the demographics across the company would be uniform, regardless of what level you are at. So the white men were getting ahead more than others.
So I was like, “I need to make their companies more inclusive. In fact, I need to make all of tech more inclusive to really help my coaching clients,” and yeah, laugh, right? A big job, one person over here. Now, what's the first thing anyone does these days when they want to change the world? You start a Twitter handle. So I started the Twitter handle @betterallies. I started in 2014 with a goal to share simple everyday actions anyone could take to be more inclusive at work.
In hindsight, I was leveraging my super power as I started this Twitter handle. I leveraged it because I started looking at the research that social scientists do about diversity in the workplace and not just gender diversity, but diversity of all kinds. The research that shows that they were uncovering, that shows the challenges that people of non-dominant genders, as well as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity, age, abilities, and so forth. What are the challenges these people face in the workplace as they navigate that?
Others are doing this great research and I really am—and this builds on what Arty was saying—I used to think I curated this, but really, I was triaging the research. I was triaging it to simplify it, get it to its essence, and figure out with all this great research that gets published, what is someone supposed to do with it? How is the average person who works in tech supposed to take action with this great research that's out there?
So I triage and curate and I do it not just based on the research, but also what I'll call cautionary tales that appear in our news, in our Twitter feeds, and so forth. I'll give you two examples to make it real. One is based on research. There's research that shows that men interrupt women more than the other way around and so, based on that research, I go over to Twitter and I type in something like, “I pledge to notice when interruptions happen in the meetings I attend and redirect the conversation back to the person who was interrupted with a simple, ‘I'd like to hear Chanté finish her thought,’” and something like that that's research-driven.
Then the more, the cautionary tales that pop up in the research or in the news that we consume, I remember a few years ago when there was so much that was coming out about Uber and its non-inclusive workplace. Just one of the many things we learned about was that the CEO at the time and founder, Travis Kalanick, he was using the nursing mother's room for his personal phone calls. That's not cool because then the nursing moms can't get in there to do what they need to do. So I would go over to Twitter and just a little bit of snark added, I was like, “I pledge not to use the nursing mother's room for my personal phone calls unlike Travis Kalanick at Uber,” [chuckles]. That kind of thing.
So I'm just tweeting a couple times a day. I start getting Twitter messages to this anonymous Twitter account—by the way, it was anonymous at the time—and these Twitter requests would be like, “Hey, does anyone at the Better Allies Initiative do any public speaking?” and I'd be like, ‘The initiative? Huh, it's just me tweeting a couple of times a day. Okay.” But I wanted to speak about this topic and I want to retain my anonymity. So I would write back and say, “Yes, one of our contributors does some public speaking. We'll put you in touch with her,” and I go over to my personal Twitter account type something in like, “Hey, I'm Karen Catlin. I contribute to Better Allies. I love public speaking. What do you have in mind?”
So I started speaking on this whole approach of everyday simple actions people could take, the Better Allies approach, and every time I gave a talk, someone would ask, “Hey, Karen, do you have a book? Because we want more of this.” For a few years, “I kept saying, no, I don't have a book. I don't have a book. I don't have a book, sorry.” But I did finally write my book. In fact, I've written two books on the topic—"Better Allies" and also, "The Better Allies Approach to Hiring.” The Better Allies book, I just released a second edition. It's been out there for 2 years. I've learned so much that I wanted to do a full update on the book. So I've just released that a few weeks ago.
CHANTÉ: I have a follow-up question then, because Karen, you mentioned that you wanted to maintain your anonymity when you started off that handle and I would just love to hear maybe why that's so important when you're doing this work of allyship and accomplishing in this space?
KAREN: Yes, and I don't know if it is important for everyone—and I'm not anonymous anymore. I have claimed credit for this. As soon as I published my books. Writing a book is a lot of work; I'm going to claim the credit. But I didn't in the beginning because okay, I'm going to say this. A lot of people thought it was a man behind the Twitter handle and I must admit, I was kind of channeling white men that I have worked with over my career and thinking about what would they really do? What could I get them to do?
All of my tweets are first person, “I pledge to do this,” “I will do this,” I'm going to do this,” and there were people I have friends even who were like, “Hey, have you seen this @betterallies Twitter handle? I wonder who's behind it. I'd like to interview him for my podcast,” That type of thing.
So I think that there were people out there who thought it was a white man behind the Twitter handle and I was comfortable with that because not only was I channeling these white men I had worked with in the past, but I also think that there's power in men listening to other men. I'll just say that. I have actually gotten speaking engagements when I've said, “I'm a contributor.” They're like, “Are there any men who could speak because we think men would like to hear this message from another man.”
So anyway, that's kind of why I started out with that anonymous Twitter handle and with this character behind the scenes of this fake man. [laughs] But now it's okay. I say that I curate it, it's me, and I'm comfortable with that. I still do it first person because I think that white women can also be allies. We all can be allies for others with less privilege than ourselves in the workplace and I think it's important for us, everyone to be thinking, “This is a job I can and should do to be inclusive at work and to look for these everyday situations. I can take ally actions and make a difference.”
ARTY: How's that changed things like, revealing your identity and that you're not actually a big white dude?
KAREN: I know. Well, I never really said I was a big white dude! Or even a small white dude, or whatever. But I think it's fine. I claimed the association with the Twitter handle when I published my book and it was just time to just own it. It's not like people stopped following me or stopped retweeting or anything like that. It's only grown since then. So Arty, it's a good question, but I don't know. I don't know.
REIN: And this is more than a little ironic because when you were talking about your coaching—and I'm going to read into this a little bit, but I think you can confirm that it's backed up by the research—to appear equally competent or professional, women have to do more and other minoritized groups have to do more. So what I was reading in was that part of the problem you had with coaching was that to get them to an equal playing field, they had to be better.
KAREN: Yes. What you're describing, Rein is “prove-it-again” bias and this is well-researched and documented. Prove-it-again means that women have to prove themselves over and over again where men just have to show potential. This often happens and I'm going to give you just a scenario to bring it home.
Imagine sitting in some sort of promotion calibration discussion with other managers in your group and you're talking about who gets promotions this cycle. Someone might say, “Well, I'd like to see Arty prove that she can handle managing people before we move her to the next level.” When Arty, maybe you've already been doing that for a few years; you've already managed a team, you've built a team, whatever. “I'd like to make sure she can do this with this additional thing,” like, make sure she can do it with an offshore team or something. “I want to see her do it again.”
Whereas a man's like, “Ah, Damien's great. I know he can do the job. Let's promote him.” Okay, totally making this up. But you see what I'm saying is that this is what the prove-it-again bias is.
So whether it is women have to be twice as good or something like that, I don't know if that's exactly what's going on, but they have to deal with this bias of once again, I have to prove that I'm worthy to be at this table, to be in this conversation, to be invited to that strategic planning meeting, to get that promotion, and I don't want to coach women to have to keep proving themselves over and over again. Instead, I want to change the dynamics of what's happening inside these organizations so it is a better playing field, not just for my clients who are mostly women, but also, anyone out there who's from an underrepresented group, who might be facing challenges as they try to navigate this world that really has been designed for other people.
ARTY: Wow, that's really enlightening. I'm just thinking about this from a cognitive science perspective and how our brains work, and then if you're making a prediction about something and have an expectation frame for that. If I have an expectation that someone's going to do well, like I have a dream and image in my mind that they'll fit this particular stereotype, then if they just show potential to fit this image in my head, I can imagine and envision them doing all these things and trust that imaginary dream in my head.
Whereas, if I have the opposite dream in my head where my imagination shows this expectation of this person falling on their face and doing all these things wrong, I'm already in a position of having to prove something that's outside of that expectation, which is so much harder to do.
So this is the effect of these biases basically being baked into our brain already is all of our expectations and things are set up to work against people that culturally, we have these negative expectations around that have nothing to do with those actual people.
KAREN: Thanks. Arty, have you ever read the book, Whistling Vivaldi?
ARTY: I haven't. I am adding that to my list.
KAREN: It explores stereotype threat, which is exactly what you've just described, and the title, just to give you some insight into this, how this shows up. The title, Whistling Vivaldi, is all about a story of a Black man who had to walk around his neighborhood, which I believe is mostly white and got just the concerns that people didn't trust him navigating this public space, his neighborhood.
So what he would do, and I don't know if it was just in the evenings or any time, he went out to walk to be outside, he would whistle Vivaldi to break the stereotype that he was a bad person, a scary person because of the color of his skin. Instead, by whistling Vivaldi, he gave off the feeling that he was a highly educated person who studied classical music and he did that so that he could navigate his neighborhoods safely. It's awful to think about having to do that, but this book is full of these examples. It's a research-driven approach so, it's a great book to understand stereotype threat and combat it.
DAMIEN: So in the interest of us and our listeners, I suppose being better allies, you spoke about stereotype threat and gave an example there. You spoke about prove-it-again bias and specifically, with prove-it-again bias, I want to know what are ways that we can identify this real-time and counter it in real-time?
KAREN: Yes. With prove-it-again bias—well, with any bias, really. First of all, reminding yourself that it exists is really important. At Google, they found that simply reminding managers, before they went into a calibration, a performance calibration meeting, probably some rank ordering exercise of all the talent in the organization. Before they started a calibration meeting, they were all given a 1-page handout of here's the way bias can creep into this process. That simple act of having people review the list of here's the way bias creeps into the process was enough to help combat it during the subsequent conversation.
So I think we have to remind ourselves of bias and by the way, this resource I'm describing is available as a download on Google's re:Work website. I think it's R-E-: work. There's a re:Work website with tons of resources, but it's available for download there.
So that's one thing you can do is before a calibration meeting or before you're about to start an interview debrief session with a team, is remind people of the kinds of bias that can come into play so that people are more aware.
Other things, and I'll talk specifically about hiring, is I am a huge proponent of making sure that before you interview the first candidate, you have objective criteria that you're going to use to evaluate the candidates because otherwise, without objective criteria, you start relying on subjectivity, which is code for bias. Things will start to be said of, “I just don't think they'd be a culture fit,” which is code for bias of “They're different from us. They're different from me. I don't think I'd want to go get a beer with them after work,” or “If I had to travel with them and get stuck on a long layover somewhere when we can travel again, I don't think I'd enjoy that.” People just instead say, “I just don't think they'd be a culture fit.
So you get away from that by, instead in your objective criteria, looking for other things that are technically needed for the job, or some values perhaps that your company has in terms of curiosity or lifelong learning or whatever your company values are. You interview for those things and you figure out how you're going to measure someone against those objective criteria.
Other way bias creeps into interviews is looking at or saying something like, “Well, they don't have this experience with Docker that this other candidate has,” but really, that wasn't part of the job description. No one said that the candidates needed Docker experience, but all of a sudden, because one of the candidates has Docker experience, that becomes important.
So instead of getting ahead of that, make sure you list exactly what you're going to be interviewing for and evaluating people for so that the bias isn't there and bias, maybe all of a sudden Docker becomes an important thing when you realize you could get it. But it may be that it's the person who seems the most like the people in the team who has it and that’s another – you're just using that as a reason for increasing that candidate’s success to join your team because you'd like to hang out with them. You'd like to be with them. You would want to be getting a beer with them. Does that help, Damien?
DAMIEN: Yeah, that's very helpful. The framing is an absolutely pre-framing before an evaluation, before an interview what biases can happen. That's a wonderful tool, which I am going to be using everywhere I can. And then what you said about culture fit and really, every subjective evaluation is, I think the words you used was “code for bias.” Like, anytime you have a subjective evaluation, it's going to be biased. So being able to decide in advance what your objective evaluations are, then you can help avoid that issue.
Culture fit is just such a red flag for me. You said, I wrote down the words, “culture built,” right? Decide what the culture is – because culture is important in the company, decide what the culture is you want and then interview and evaluate for that.
KAREN: Yeah. Oh, I love that. Build the culture instead of just fit the culture. I've also heard people say, “If you ever hear someone say, I don't think they'd be a culture fit, respond with ‘Well, I think they'd be a culture add,’” or Damien, to quote you, “I think they build our culture instead of just fit in.” Really powerful, really powerful.
CHANTÉ: Yeah. I agree with you all and Karen, I'm not sure if you knew this, but one of the many things I do, which takes up most of my life, is I'm a DEI practitioner and I have a firm, and I also work in-house at a company, Village MD, as a director of DEI there.
So one of the things that I talk a lot about is culture add and one of the things I'd love to see more companies do is to think about like, basically take an inventory of all the people on your team and try to identify where you're strong, where you're weak, and look for the skills gap analysis, basically and say, “What don't we have here,” and then, “Let's go hire for that skillset or that expertise that we don't have that we believe could help us build this thing better this year.”
That's going to require people to do that exercise, not just once because your team dynamic shifts usually a few times a year. So if you're a high growth company, you should be doing that probably every quarter. But imagine what the difference would be if we approach interviewing and promotion building from that lens instead.
KAREN: Yeah, and Chanté, the way you framed it is amazing. I love it. You said, “What do we not have that we need to build our product to deliver to our customers?” I don't remember the exact words you used, but that I think is important because I've also, in conversations I've had around culture fit and culture and everything, someone say to me, “Well, wait a second, Karen, what if you we're evaluating a white supremacist? It's clear, there are white supremacists and we don't have one of those yet on the team. Does that mean we should open the doors and let them in?”
That's when it's like, you can use the way you've just framed as “Well, if we're building a product for white supremacists, then yeah, probably.” But to be more serious about this, it's like what's missing from our team structure, from the diversity within this team, that is going to allow us to deliver on our product, on our offering better? I think that's important.
Another lens to apply here is also you can still do values fit. Make sure people fit with the values that you have as a company and that should allow you to interview out people who don't fit with your values and just to use that example of a white supremacist. That would be the way to do that, too.
REIN: I think it's really important to say that ethics still matters here and values fit as a way to express that. One of the things that I would maybe caution or challenge is—and this isn't a direct challenge to you, Karen, I don't think—but it's been popular in the industry to try to remove bias from the equation. To do debiasing training and things like that and I think that that's the wrong way to go because I don't think it's cognitively possible to remove bias. I think instead what we should do, what I think that you're talking about here is being aware of the biases we have. Accounting for them in the way that we hire, because the same heuristic that leads to a bias against certain demographics is the one we use to say, “We don't want white supremacists.”
KAREN: Yeah. Plus a hundred, yes. [laughs] I agree. What I was going to say, Rein to build on what you just shared is that it's important to see things like color, for example, to understand. Even if you feel you're not biased, it's important to see it, to see color, to see disability, to see someone who is going through a transition, for example, on their identity.
It's important to see it because that allows you to understand the challenges that they are facing and if you say, “I don't see color, I just see them as their new identity, post-transition. I don't see their disability; I just see the person,” it negates the experience they're having, as they are trying to navigate the workplace and to be the best allies, you need to understand the challenges people are facing and how you can take action to help them either mitigate the challenge, get around the challenge, whatever that might be, or remove the challenge.
ARTY: So you're not being empathetic to the circumstances by pretending that they don't exist.
KAREN: Yes. Well said, yes.
REIN: It’s the idea that you can be on bias that I think is dangerous. I want to call back to this idea of a meritocracy; the idea that every choice we make is based on merit and that whatever we choose is indicative of the merit of that person is the bias that is harmful.
KAREN: Woo, yes. I can't wait to refer to that. I can't wait to come back and listen to you. What you just said, Rein that is powerful.
REIN: Because becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? We're a meritocracy so everything we've chosen is means – if we chose someone that means that they have merit by definition. There's no way out of that trap.
KAREN: Right on.
CHANTÉ: Yeah. When you say that, it makes me think, too of just the sort of committal to always transforming and iterating. So if you come in the door saying, “Listen, there's no way we can eliminate bias all the time.” We're going to make the assumption that we're always being biased and therefore, what things can we put into place and what tools can we use? What resources can we leverage here to make sure that we're on a pathway for greater inclusion, greater accessibility? Therefore, making our organization more diverse and more innovative.
I think, like Rein, I just want to really underscore that because that is something that I've had to really try to lead with versus add to the conversation later. So I'm appreciating that you brought it up today. Thank you.
REIN: It’s like some of the choices, some of the evaluations we're making are subjective. We can't make them objective in every case; I think what we want is a framework that allows us to do these subjective evaluations in a way that accounts for bias.
DAMIEN: So that's amazing. Where do we go from here?
ARTY: One of the things we talked about last time with regards to various people getting promoted, this effect of maler and paler as you get closer to the C-suite, is that one of the effects of that is when you're sitting down to hire someone, well, who do you know? Who's on the list of people that I know within my network? So one of the huge biases we end up having isn't necessarily a cognitive bias, it's just a effect of where our attention has been and who we've been hanging out and who we have relationships with that are preexisting.
These existing network effects also keep us in the thinking and stuff and making decisions within the context of those networks. We promote people that we know. We promote people that we have relationships with. So even just some of the dynamics of if you've got existing C-suite dynamics that is dominated by men and you've got these dynamics where it’s difficult for men and women to have relationships for various reasons, things that get complicated, that those sorts of things can end up creating a self-reinforcing effect, too.
I'm wondering what are some of your thoughts on some of the ways that we can expand our networks and expand the people that we know to shift some of those systemic effects?
KAREN: Yeah. Most of us have homogenous networks. Homogenous networks meaning people who are just like us because we have something in common with them, whether that is hobbies that we share, music we like talking about, food we like to go out to enjoy whatever we have things in common. So most of us end up having a –and it's true. Most white people have networks that are full of other white people and this also is friendship circles. There's again, social science research out there that shows that we tend to have networks full of people just like us.
As you just were saying, Arty this impacts so many aspects of work in terms of who we hire, who we recommend, who we promote, who we even ask to take on some like stretch assignment or tasks such as giving the update at the all-hands meeting for our team, or going in and exploring some new technology that might be on the horizon that we could leverage. Who are we going to trust with these stretch assignments are people that we know and the people that we know are the people in our network. So it is important to look to diversify our network. There's so many ways to do this.
When I give talks, I share some of these ways. One is literally when new people join your team or from a different demographic than you, get to know them and get to know their work and their career goals and down the road, look for how you might be able to connect some dots. But really, take the time to get to know people who you might otherwise just like, “Oh yeah, they're joining the team, whatever,” but set up that virtual coffee or whatever.
The other thing you can do is join Slack groups or other discussion forums at your company for people from that demographic. After checking first, if you'd be welcome and invited, of course, but many of these groups will be open to allies and if you are wanting to join that discussion groups so that you can sort of understand the conversation, understand the challenges, get to know some of this talent. That's a great way to do it.
You can also go to conferences that are designed for members of other groups that you're not a part of. Again, asking first permission, if you'd be welcome as an ally, but in tech, there's so many of these, but there's lesbians who tech, there are Black women in tech or Black coders conferences. There are Latinas in tech. Meetups and things like that. So there's so many opportunities to go and hear incredibly talented speakers talking about the technology and the projects and the work that they do and it's a great way to expand your network.
I'll share my favorite hack that I do when it's in-person and I'm going to a meetup or an event. I'm an introvert, I will let everyone know that. It's hard for me to go into a networking group like the meetup that's happening and there's some pizza and some drinks before it starts, or that conference reception. It's hard for me to go into a room like that.
So when I do, I quickly scan the room and I look for someone who's standing by themselves or sitting by themselves, who is from a different demographic and I go over and say, “Hi.” That's the easiest introduction for me as an introvert is to go find someone who's all by themselves and maybe feeling a little awkward that they're all by themselves too and it's a great way to strike a conversation and again, to expand my network, meet some new people, not just my friends that might be coming to the same event.
DAMIEN: So one of the things that I want to call attention to, too with what you're saying there is that this marginalization and privilege is self-reinforcing. You don't have to have – even though we all have cognitive biases, they aren't actually necessary for marginalization and privilege to self-reinforce and in fact, because that actually takes effort to undo these things. If we just go along, if we pretend not to see color, or whatever, we are actually reinforcing the problems that exist.
KAREN: Yeah, and Damien, on that note. In my book, and it's also a free download on my website, betterallies.com. I have a list that I've curated of 50 ways you might have privilege in the workplace. I like people to read through this list and think about all the ways they have privilege that others might not. The top of the list are “I'm a male,” and “I'm white,” and those are the top two things. But then it gets into more nuanced things and nuanced things being, “I'm not the primary caregiver for someone else.” Well, why is that something we should be aware of as allies? Well, when you're the primary caregiver, that means you may have to drop things at a moment's notice to take a child or a parent to a doctor's appointment, for example, or you might be interrupted in your work. So there's privilege when you don't have that caregiving responsibility.
Another one is that you actually have budget enough spare money so that you can do after work outings with a team that aren't company sanctioned. Like, “Yeah, I can afford to go out to dinner,” and gosh, this all sounds so weird now with the pandemic and how long it’s lasting. But “Yeah, I can go out for drinks or dinner with my team after work and pay my way,” or “I can do that whitewater rafting trip on the weekend that people are getting together with.” Even though it's not company work, it's still networking and that builds bonds that builds relationships and sure, work is going to be discussed.
It also includes things such as “I am not holding a visa,” which means that I have confidence that I maybe can take some risks with my career. “I can move teams, move to another manager, try something new out because I have confidence that I'm not going to potentially lose my job, which means losing my visa, which means losing my ability to live in the United States.”
So there's so many ways that we have privileged that I think at first blush, we might not realize and I think building on your point, Damien it's important for us to understand this privilege so that we can be understanding of how and why we should be diversifying our network and getting to know people who have different levels of privilege than ourselves.
REIN: And if you're like a white dude who's like, “This is a lot to keep track of.” Yes. When you don't have them, it's obvious.
KAREN: Yeah, you can be oblivious. Otherwise – not that you would be, Rein. I'm not saying that, but one can be very oblivious.
REIN: I’m probably oblivious of like, at least 30 of them, so.
DAMIEN: For people who are marginalized every axes, we really cannot be unaware. It's dangerous. Those of us who were unaware of it, suffer disastrous consequences. So in places where you are privileged, if one of the privileges is to not be aware of it and yes, it is a lot to keep track of and yes, as everybody else has to keep track of that stuff.
KAREN: Yeah, and building on what you both just said, this is just like technology in some ways and let me explain what I mean by that. Let's not take it out of context because there's some nuanced stuff I'm about to share. But in tech, there are so many areas of specialty, whether that is in data science or product security or accessibility related engineering or internationalization engineering and, and, and like, there's so many areas of expertise.
And Rein, you’re like, “As a white guy, how am I supposed to keep track of all of this?” Well, it's hard. I get it because the field keeps changing, things keep getting innovated on or brought to the surface and the same thing, I'm sure that Chanté sees this in the DEI space. We are learning all the time about how to create more inclusive workplaces where everyone can do their best work and thrive. It's the same as like what am I learning about writing the right kind of code that is going to have lasting impact, that is going to not cause incidents over the weekend [chuckles] when we all want to be doing something else? When it's not going to down the road because technical debt that is going to have to be retired?
So yeah, it's hard work. I don't mean to say it's not, but we need to make sure we have people who are thinking about this around us, who are reminding us, who are teaching us the best practices so that we are getting ahead of this versus falling behind.
REIN: One of the things you said last time that I really want to make sure we bring back up is that doing this work is everyone's job.
KAREN: Yes. Yeah, and Rein, I think we got into that conversation talking specifically about product security, software security. You can have a team of people who are software security specialists/experts. In fact, when I was at Adobe in my department, that was one of the groups in my department was cross-engineering product security specialists and they know this stuff. They are paying attention to the landscape. They know when those zero-day incidents happen and what the response is like, and what bounties are being paid and they know all of that because they love it. They're paying attention to it, but they can't solve the problem for the whole company. They cannot make sure that every piece of code is hardened so that the viruses don't get injected. There aren't security violations.
What they need to do is educate others, be there to support them when things go bad. But it's really about educating every engineer to be using the libraries the right way, to be allocating memory in the right way, whatever so that we don't have those security violations and it's the same thing with being inclusive.
I have so much respect for anyone and Chanté, it sounds like you do this work, but like, you are responsible for diversity at a company and are looking top down at what are the measurements we're going to have? What are the quarterly or annual goals that we want to have to improve our diversity?